On May 19, J & J, the world's largest manufacturer of health products, announced the discontinuation of its flagship product, Johnson baby powder, in the U.S. and Canada. Sales had collapsed following a wave of lawsuits filed by women suffering from ovarian cancer or mesothelioma after using the powder for their intimate hygiene.
Despite of this, the multinational continues to claim that there has never been any asbestos in this talcum powder. It has announced that sales of this product will continue in other countries.
Stronger control of the composition of talc imported into other countries is called for. In France Andeva has alerted the Minister of Health.
A tidal wave of lawsuits in the United States
To date, 19,400 legal proceedings have been initiated in the United States by women who used Johnson Baby Powder talcum powder for intimate hygiene and who now are suffering of ovarian cancer or mesothelioma. In St. Louis, Missouri, in July 2018, after a six-week trial, J&J was ordered to pay $4.69 billion in damages in a lawsuit filed by 22 women and their families. The plaintiffs are seeking payment from J&J for their medical expenses, physical and emotional suffering, and punitive damages. Some lawsuits have been won by J&J.
The media coverage of this legal tidal wave has provoked legitimate mistrust among consumers. Sales of "Baby powder" have plummeted. And J&J finally had to announce on May 19th that it stopped selling this product in the USA and Canada.
In turn, other American companies announced that they stopped selling talc products in the USA.
The presence of asbestos in talcum powder has been known for a long time
Talc is a natural mineral extracted in mines. In deposits, talc coexists with various minerals among which asbestos can be found. This has been known for decades by the managers of the J&J company. Internal company reports dating back to the 1970s show this. And yet mining, production and marketing continued for decades!
The risk continues. Recent tests in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) detected asbestos in J&J Baby powder. This was Chinese talc contaminated with chrysotile asbestos.
The evidence is mounting, but J&J continues to maintain that there was never any asbestos in its talc-based products. The company announced that it would continue to market them outside the Americas.
Other countries must respond
Why should these products withdrawn from the US market continue to be sold in Europe, Asia, Australia or Africa when substitutes (based on corn starch) exist that can be used safely?
This is the first question that all governments in other countries should ask themselves.
In the European Union, where asbestos has been banned since 2005, this question should not be a problem. But the control of products imported into the EU faces two difficulties:
1) To date, there is no exhaustive analytical mapping of the planet's talc deposits, mentioning the presence or absence of asbestos at each mining site.
2) The analytical techniques recommended by the European Pharmacopoeia are obsolete. Electron microscopy (EMT) should be used, as it makes it possible to identify asbestos fibres that remain invisible under optical microscopy.
A survey of cosmetic talc powders from the Italian and international markets, carried out by electron microscopy, detected asbestos in 6 of the 14 samples from the European Pharmacopoeia. The percentage of asbestos fibres found ranged from < 0.03% to 0.13% for four samples, and from 18% to 22% for the other two samples .
Barry Castleman, an independent scientific consultant in the USA, alerted the international network of anti-asbestos activists. Two months before Johnson Baby Powder stopped selling in the USA, Andeva had written to the Health Minister to alert him. Without a reply, we will come back to the matter, as this is a serious public health problem.
On March 5th, Jacques Faugeron, the president of Andeva, wrote to Olivier Véran to request an electron microscopy (EMT) control of all cosmetic and industrial products containing talcum powder imported into France and Europe.
"The presence of asbestos in talcum powder poses a serious public health problem."
Dear Mr. Minister,
The presence of asbestos in talcum powder, used in particular in certain cosmetic and industrial products, poses a serious public health problem. As you know, many people suffering from cancer have taken legal action in the United States against the Johnson & Johnson group.
In France, a study by ANSES published in 2012 made the following recommendations:
- the need to establish an accurate mapping of the various talc deposits around the world with an identification of other mineral fibres they may contain, and ensure the traceability of talc, from extraction to marketing in France.
- That in the absence of any reliable and validated information on the origin of talc, which would make it possible to assert the absence of contamination, elongated particles of ATA amphiboles in talc, or in talc-containing products marketed in France, whether asbestiform or not, have to be investigated according to the regulatory methods concerning the search for asbestos in materials.
- As regards talc-containing products, whether marketed or already in place, to apply the regulations on asbestos, in the event that ATA amphibole fibres are found.
- In the workplace, if ATA amphibole fibres are present in the air inhaled by workers exposed to talcum powder or products containing talcum powder, apply the regulations on asbestos.
Our association, Andeva, which has been defending asbestos victims in France for 24 years, would like to know what measures have been taken following these recommendations.
People who use talcum powder or products containing it, in their daily lives or in the workplace, are entitled to ask for guarantees on their origin and exact composition. Our association would like to know precisely what control methods have been implemented in France and at the European level to ensure the absence of asbestos fibres in these products. Andeva would also like to know if these controls concern all products placed on the market. More specifically, we would like to know whether all talc-based products currently sold to the public in France have been subject to prior tests by analytical transmission electron microscopy (ATEM), carried out in France or in other European Union countries, before they are placed on the market, in order to protect public health.
Thank you in advance for your attention to these questions and we look forward to your answers. We ask you, Minister, to receive our respectful regards.
[The Ministry has acknowledged receipt, but the questions posed remain unanswered to date]
(1) Dion, C., G. Perrault, and M. Rhazi, Synthèse des connaissances sur la tremolite contenue dans le talc. 2012. p. 98